The following is excerpted from the Deseret News. To read the full article, CLICK HERE.
There’s a famous scene from Lewis Carroll’s classic “Alice in Wonderland” in which Alice is staring silently at a hookah-smoking caterpillar. The larva finally breaks the standoff with a question: “Who are you?” Alice hems and haws until the caterpillar asks again, this time more pointedly: “You! … Who are you?”
This question is the most pressing of our time. And its answer holds the power to shape society. Indeed, the source of today’s deepest and most worrying political conflicts ultimately is grappling with differing definitions of what it means to be human — to be a person.
Carroll’s children’s book prefigured our modern problem. And so, too, did the 20th century philosopher Sydney Shoemaker when he imagined a fictional scenario where a surgeon operated on the brains of two men, Brown and Robinson. At the end of the operation, his assistant replaced the brains in the wrong bodies. Unfortunately, one of the men dies.
The survivor, however, now has the body of Robinson and the brain of Brown. He does not recognize himself in the mirror but he thinks of himself as Brown, has Brown’s memories, is still in love with Brown’s wife. And as he slowly recovers from the operation, he slowly but surely starts to act exactly as Brown used to act.
The immediate question, of course, is: Who is he? Is he Brown, trapped in the body of Robinson? Is he Robinson but just with the wrong brain? Is he some hybrid of the two? Or is the human body simply a tool for expressing inner identity and of no significance for who we are beyond that? The answer to these questions rests upon a prior understanding of what it is that gives us our identities. What is the real “us”: Is it our psychological states, our feelings, our bodies or something else?
In the years since Shoemaker’s thought experiment, the political culture of the United States has tilted strongly toward a psychological construction of human identity. In short, public policy is increasingly driven by the assumption that private psychological states or feelings are the basic foundation for personal identity — for who we think we are. The idea that bodies can contain the wrong mind and that bodies ought to be fashioned to our inner will and feelings is now widespread.
The political significance of this might not be obvious at first glance but becomes very clear when we reflect upon how our culture is changing as a result. Take, for example, the idea of freedom as traditionally understood in America. Freedom of religion and freedom of speech are — or were — basic to the American experiment. They are enshrined in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, a placement which surely points to the priority they held in the minds of the founders.
These ideas, though, were also rooted in a certain understanding of humans: that they were made in the image of God and that they were deserving of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet these truths — once thought self-evident — are under increasing scrutiny as new, and even revolutionary, ideas of the human person are sweeping Western culture.
And the alarming news for many is that, as much as religious conservatives might want to view this current trend as a simple battle of good versus evil or us versus them, Americans from across the ideological spectrum are all deeply implicated in the modern revolution of human selfhood. The way out will demand that we capture an older and more truthful understanding of who we are.
To read the full article, CLICK HERE.